Farewell to an Age of Tyranny? Egypt as a Model of Arab Revolution

When Hosni Mubarak, looking out of a palace window, saw the demonstrators down below on January 25, 2011, he turned to his advisor and exclaimed: "My God! It's a revolt!" "No, my President," was the answer, "that is a revolution." Well, alright, this legendary quote is usually attributed to French King Louis XVI, on July 14, 1789.1 Yet, judging by the mild response of the Egyptian police forces it is possible that, like his European predecessor, Mubarak did indeed underestimate the significance of the events unfolding before his eyes. The parable draws our attention to the important distinction between a revolt, a takeover and a coup on the one hand, and a revolution on the other.

The events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Arab countries have caught many observers of the Middle East scene by surprise. Few have predicted the possibility of a popular uprisings leading to the downfall of entrenched authoritarian regimes.2 The positive term "Arab Spring" has been coined to describe this wave, though the changes so far undoubtedly include also some "winter" elements.3 The aim of this short article is to analyze the main reasons for the events in Egypt that led to the demise of the Mubarak regime and their implications on other parts of the Arab world. The fact that many Arab countries recently witnessed upheavals while others were little affected or completely bypassed begs further explanation as to the reasons for these different responses.

Defining "Revolution"

The literature on revolutions offers many definitions. These can be classified into two types: those which measure revolution by its successes and achievements; and those which emphasize the mere attempt at change without attaching too much importance to the results. For the purpose of our analysis, I adopt Michael Kimmel's definition, which stipulates that "revolutions are attempts by subordinate groups to transform the social foundations of political power."4 This definition is useful since it differentiates between revolutions and other forms of social change, such as coups and rebellions; it includes successful and unsuccessful revolutions; it embraces a large number of sequences over various amounts of time; and it includes both violent and peaceful modes of change.5 Such a definition suggests that the events in Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps in other Arab countries, can be classified as revolutions.

Regardless of the theoretical debate over the meaning of revolution, the events in Tunisia and Egypt constituted the first-ever successful attempt in the Arab world of popular uprisings to topple the regime. In contrast to Iran, the Arab world witnessed regime changes mainly through military coups (inqilab), mainly during the 1950s and 1960s. And though these changes were depicted as revolutions (thawra), the fact of the matter was that they usually represented only a change in the governing elite. In certain cases the coups initiated a process of profound political, social and economic changes, which eventually amounted to a revolution (Nasser's Egypt being a prime model). Arab intellectuals and media pundits were quick to describe current events as an Arab Spring or awakening of the underprivileged classes. The fact that the events could be described as "revolutions" bestowed a positive image on its carriers: Rashid Khalidi has written that "[s]uddenly, to be an Arab has become a good thing. People all over the Arab world feel a sense of pride in shaking off decades of cowed passivity under dictatorships that ruled with no deference to popular wishes."6 A typical statement imbued with self-pride was offered by Sajida Tasneem:

The 'chaotic', 'irrational', 'weak' and 'politically inept' people of the Orient, once deemed incapable of bringing 'order' and considered 'incompatible' with democracy, have now not only managed to topple a dictator and pave the way for crucial political and constitutional reforms, but just as significantly they have also managed to achieve this by themselves without the help of the charitable hand of the West.7

The Three Historical Phases of Revolution in Egypt

A revolution, according to Kimmel, occurs as the culmination of three temporal moments: The first is the existence of preconditions, which include the long-term, structural shifts in the social foundations of the society, responsible for the creation of what can be defined as a "revolutionary moment." The second is the precipitants, which are the short-term historical events that "allow these deeply seated structural forces to emerge as politically potent and begin to mobilize potential discontents." The final moment includes the trigger(s) - the immediate historical events that set the revolutionary process in motion.8


With the wisdom of hindsight it is clear that Egypt witnessed these three historical phases: The first precondition is the existence of an authoritarian regime since the 1950s, ending with Mubarak's 30-year rule. The military-civilian elite consolidated its power and guaranteed its survival by certain institutional mechanisms, such as the constitution, the emergency law and the parliament. The regime allowed only limited political activity and freedom of expression, while overt expressions of opposition were dealt with harshly. The second long-term precondition was the demographic situation: Since 1950, Egypt's population had quadrupled, from 21.4 million to 83 million people, in spite of the relatively successful regime measures at birth control, which led to a decline in the birth rate from 2.8% in the 1980s to 1.9% in the 2000s. This high birth rate means that the regime needs to provide adequate means to take care of some 1.6 million babies annually. The long-term implications of this process were growing unemployment, deterioration in health and educational services and an uneven society structure, in which at least one-third of the population is below the age of 14.9 In general, the preconditions responsible for the creation of a revolutionary situation in Egypt were similar in various Arab countries.


The elements which precipitated the revolution were numerous: The first was the question of Mubarak's inheritance (tawrith). Certain amendments in the constitution in 2005 seemingly opened the way for a more democratic process of election for the presidency that ended with Mubarak's expected victory. During his sixth term in office he groomed his son, Gamal, as his successor; his possible "enthronement" turned Egypt into a kind of monarchy (Sa'd Eddin Ibrahim aptly termed it gumlukiya - the combination of republic [gumhuriya] and monarchy [malakiya]).10 Many considered this kind of "dynastic republicanism" as an affront to their national dignity. One popular group that protested against this eventuality was the Egyptian Movement for Change called Kefaya ("Enough"), established in 2004. Jason Brownlee was right, therefore, to conclude that "each step that brings Gamal closer to the presidency, gives way to the potential for dramatically new developments, from an army coup to an Islamist takeover."11 No less important were the repeated rumors of the excessive corruption associated with the Mubaraks and their cronies.

The second precipitant was the results of the judicially non-monitored parliamentary elections in November 2010. In contrast to the composition of the 2005 parliament, which included 88 members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (out of 454 seats), the current makeup included no members (out of an enlarged parliament of 518 seats). The virtual elimination of the opposition (which included only 15 members of various opposition parties) attested to the corrupt nature of the elections.12 Moreover, a voter turnout of 10% was another signal of the public apathy and lack of faith in the electoral procedure.

The third precipitant was the wide popular protest movement that has engulfed society since 2004. According to data from the Egyptian Human Rights Organization, some 1,900 strikes and demonstrations took place during the years 2004-08, with the participation of some 1.7 million people.13 Other figures cited by Joel Beinin indicate that some 2 million workers participated in 2,623 factory strikes between 1998 and 2008.14 These strikes and demonstrations were often violently crushed by the security forces, leading to deaths and injuries. The main reason for these strikes was the workers' fears of the adverse consequences of the economy's privatization process, the desire to improve their living conditions and the rising unemployment which soared beyond the official 8% rate. In addition, it was a result of the rising cost of living vis-à-vis declining salaries, caused by changes in the global market.15 The closure of the political system to these agents of change - workers and educated unemployed youth - led to the emergence of "April 6th" (the date in 2008 when a large strike in a textile plant in Mahala al-Kubra was launched) and the National Movement for Change, led by Mohammad El-Baradei, former director general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. These new movements gathered adherents through the Internet's social media networks, particularly Facebook. With the tight governmental control of the press and TV, this new technology has liberated the new generations in the sense that it allows them to operate almost freely in this virtual reality. In the words of Abdel- Moneim Said, "the Facebook youth gave Egypt a new face."16 The rapid emergence of these civil society forces indicates that they have become more sophisticated in the art of protest.


Finally, the preconditions and precipitators would not have exploded without the trigger of the mass demonstrations in Tunisia, which started on January 14, 2011, when a fruit seller named Muhammad Bouazizi set himself ablaze, and ended with the collapse of the Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali regime. It should be emphasized, as many Egyptians later admitted, that when the date of January 25 - celebrated in Egypt as Police Day17 - was fixed for the popular demonstration in Tahrir Square, no one could have predicted that this would ignite a wave leading to the downfall of the Mubarak regime. This outcome was facilitated by two further elements: the fact that Mubarak was slow to react and unwilling to violently crush the riots - perhaps another sign of his deteriorating health condition - encouraged more people to join the rebels. Also, al-Jazeera played an active role in inflaming the masses with provocative coverage of the events. In fact, the global communication revolution - the introduction of cell phones, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter - facilitated the quick transfer of the revolution from one country to another.

Different Reactions in the Arab World

The downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes quickly inspired many civil society elements in other Arab countries. Demonstrations crying for regime change and reforms were held in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq and more. The spillover effect was hardly surprising, since the Arab world is considered a regional subsystem, consisting of several "proximate and interacting states which have some common ethnic, linguistic, cultural, social and historical bonds, and whose sense of identity is sometimes increased by the actions and attitudes of states external to the system."18 The fact that the Arab players recognize themselves to be a distinctive area with its own peculiar patterns means that a change at one point in the subsystem affects other points. This Arab interconnectedness is facilitated by the emergence of a dialogue in the new media - TV satellite stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya and pan- Arab London-based newspapers such as al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, as well as many Arab Internet sites.

The Arab world can be divided into four categories in terms of the revolutionary process: The first includes states which had already passed the first stage of the revolution - Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; the second encompasses states which are in the midst of the struggle - Syria, Yemen and perhaps Bahrain; the third includes states which had witnessed some sporadic signs of demonstrations and protests but where these have not yet reached the masses - Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Iraq; and the fourth includes states which have so far remained unaffected by the events - Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Sudan and Palestine. Naturally, this is not a rigid division, and states may move to a different category at almost any time.

What are the possible reasons for the different reactions in the Arab world? It should be emphasized that not every Arab country will necessarily witness a revolution. Thus, for example, military coups in the 1950s and 1960s succeeded in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Libya but failed in Jordan and Lebanon and did not occur in most North-African and Gulf countries. It seems that the monarchies are more immune to drastic changes as a result of their resilient political system and their relative legitimacy. In general, it seems that five elements affect the chances of a revolution occurring: First, geographical proximity has some influence; it cannot be a coincidence that three of the major revolutions of late occurred in North Africa. Second, the existence of a heterogeneous society may exacerbate tensions, leading to public protests. Third, the reaction of the security forces to the challenge posed to the regime undoubtedly affects its continuation: A mild reaction encourages the rebels, while a harsh reaction discourages them. Still, a harsh reaction like in Libya did not deter the demonstrators. Fourth, certain regimes - particularly the rich oil-producing countries - possess enough financial resources to appease the potential rebels. Saudi Arabia, for example, reportedly poured an astounding sum of $135billion in various subsidies and bonuses to society. Finally, there are states which are immersed in other domestic problems (Palestine - the desire to end Israeli occupation) or are haunted by memories of previous civil wars (Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan).

The Future of the Revolutionary Processes

The coming months will tell how the revolutions in Egypt and the neighboring Arab countries are to unfold. According to Rex Hopper, the revolutionary process runs in four stages: the preliminary stage of individual excitement and unrest; then the popular stage of crowd/mass excitement and unrest; the third, formal stage when the Esprit de corps is established and issues and publics are defined; and finally the institutional stage of legislation and societal organization. During this period, "the out-groups must finally be able to legalize or organize their power; they must become the in-group of the structure of the political power."19 Clearly, Tunisia and Egypt and perhaps Libya have reached the final stage of institutionalizing the achievements of the revolution. This is the most crucial stage, which determines the level of success of the revolution. Since forces in favor of maintaining the status quo have not been completely eliminated (e.g., the army and the bureaucracy), the possibilities of setback, impasse and even counter-revolutions should not be ruled out. Fears of such scenarios are voiced in the Arab press.20 In this respect, perhaps the revolutions in Europe in 1848-1849, when progress and reaction went hand in hand, are the best analogy to the Arab revolutions. In 1849, according to Anne Applebaum, "many of the revolutions of 1848 might have seemed disastrous, but looking back from 1899 or 1919, they seemed like the beginning of a successful change."21

The next stage will see the formation of a new balance of power in Egypt between three elements: the army, which is keen to preserve its security and economic interests; the Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the Freedom and Justice Party; and the Salafi Movement, represented mainly by the al-Nour Party); and the more liberal-secular youth (mainly represented by the Egyptian Bloc - an alliance of liberal parties). This is an uneven triangle, with disparate aims and modes of operation. The United States and the West also played an important role in these revolutions. Libya stands as a prime example, but there are indications that the U.S. may have coordinated with the Egyptian army the toppling of Mubarak. Three scenarios can be predicted at the end of this struggle for power in Egypt and other Arab countries: the continued rule of the same political and economic elite, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF);22 the formation of an Islamic state resembling the Turkish or the Pakistani models; and the emergence of a new hybrid model, which would combine religious and secular elements. This model will see the Islamization of the liberal forces and the secularization of the Islamic forces. The results of the elections for both the parliament and the presidency, ending in June 2012, will determine the nature of the emerging model.

The Arab revolutions were, to a large extent, "faceless": No charismatic leadership has emerged so far. In the near future, it is expected that a new leadership will appear; if not, this will no doubt damage the revolution's ability to achieve its aims.23 On the whole, this period may witness instability and the possible use of violence by underprivileged tribal, sectarian or religious groups, particularly in heterogeneous societies. The civil war in Libya was a case in point; Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war that would most probably lead to the downfall of the 'Alawi-led Assad regime. Some Arab countries may weather the storm by initiating a set of reforms. In that case, the result would be a "refolution" - a term coined by Timothy Ash with regard to the events in Eastern Europe in 1989, and meaning a hybrid transformation that involves both reform and revolution.24 In his famed fictional satire, Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote, under the devastating impact of the Communist and Fascist revolutions, that "all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure." The Arab people hope to see their revolutions as successes, though they would certainly not be the same success.


In spite of the short historical perspective, it is clear that 2011 will be remembered as a dramatic year in the annals of modern Arab history. The precise political and social outcomes of the changes are still unclear. So far, no new social contract between ruler and ruled have emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or any other Arab country. The states which underwent a revolution are in a process of transition. This transition period may be peaceful, violent or both, depending on the circumstances and actors in each country. In general, it seems safe to assume that Arab rulers will have to be more responsive to their audiences; relying on sheer brutal force to maintain power will not suffice in the long run. The social forces unleashed by the revolution - the young lower-middle-class, either liberal or Islamist - will return to the street if other avenues of expression are blocked by the regime. In addition, the new language of Tahrir Square - the discourse of human rights, democracy and pluralism - will strike roots. In light of these developments, it is possible that the "Arabs came together to bid farewell to an age of quiescence."25 Yet, the transition from authoritarianism to more democratic regimes may be long and arduous.

The fact that the revolution occurred in Egypt - historically the most important Arab country which in the past actually led significant processes, such as modernization, anti-colonial struggles and military regimes - means that we shall continue witnessing the domino effect in other Arab states, given their structural, historical and cultural similarities. In Ajami's apt description, "when the revolt arrived in Cairo, it found a stage worthy of its ambitions."26 The days of Nasser's charismatic leadership are gone indeed, but Egypt can once more turn into an Arab model.

This is an updated version of a paper published in Sharqiyya - the E-Journal of Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel (MEISAI) and the Department of Middle East History at Tel Aviv University (

1 The story opens the book by Michael S. Kimmel, Revolution: A Sociological Interpretation (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990), p. 1.
2 For some rare exceptions, see John R. Bradley, Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008); David Ottaway, Egypt on a Tipping Point? Occasional Paper Series (Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center, 2010); Tarek Osman, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
3 Elie Podeh, "Four Seasons in the Arab World," Haaretz, June 10, 2011.
4 Kimmel, Revolution, p. 6. For other definitions, see, for example, Lawrence Stone, "Theories of Revolutions," World Politics, Vol. 18 (1966), pp. 159-176; Michael D. Richards, Revolutions in World History (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 1-11; Noel Parker, Revolutions and History: An Essay in Interpretation (Oxford: Polity Press, 1999), pp. 1-12.
5 Kimmel, Revolution, p. 6.
6 Rashid Khalidi, "The Arab Spring," Agence Global, March 3, 2011.
7 Sajida Tasneem, "Democracy, Egyptian Style," Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 1039, March 17-23, 2011. See also El-Sayed Amin Shalabi, "We're Not That Different After All," ibid. The same idea was voiced by the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, "We in the Middle East Have Replaced Humiliation with Dignity," Guardian, March 15, 2011.
8 Kimmel, Revolution, pp. 9-10.
9 For data, see Onn Winckler, Twentieth Century Political Demography in the Arab World (Ra'anana: Open University, 2008), pp. 38, 46, 48, 83. [Hebrew]
10 This phenomenon was relevant also in Syria, Libya and Yemen. See Larbi Sadiki, "Whither Arab 'Republicanism'? The Rise of Family Rule and the 'End of Democratization' In Egypt, Libya and Yemen," Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 15 (2010), pp. 99-107.
11 Jason Brownlee, "The Heir Apparency of Gamal Mubarak," Arab Studies Journal, Vol. 15/16 (Fall 2007/Spring 2008), pp. 52-53.
12 MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Report, No. 653, Dec. 28, 2010.
14 Joel Beinin, "Workers' Protest in Egypt: Neo-Liberalism and Class Struggle in 21st Century," Social Movement Studies, Vol. 8 (2009), p. 449.
15 Bradley, Inside Egypt, pp. 40-41.
16 Abdel-Moneim Said, "National Consensus Candidate Needed," al-Ahram Weekly, No. 1036, 24/2- 2/3/2011.
17 Police Day was declared an official holiday in 2009 to commemorate the massacre of over 50 policemen in Isma'iliyya by British forces on Jan. 25, 1952, which triggered widespread demonstrations and riots in Egypt, leading eventually to the military takeover on July 23, 1952. The day of Jan. 25, 2011 was deliberately chosen as a day of protest to signify resentment against the brutal measures employed by the police and security forces against the demonstrators in recent years. See Elie Podeh, The Politics of National Celebrations in the Arab Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011), p 106. With the inclusion of January 25 in the formal national calendar it would become clear that the revolution accomplished its aims.
18 Quoted in Elie Podeh, "The Emergence of the Arab State System Reconsidered," Diplomacy and Statecraft, Vol. 9 (1998), p. 51.
19 Rex Hopper, "The Revolutionary Process: A Frame of Reference for the Study of Revolutionary Movements," Social Forces, Vol. 28 (1950), pp. 270-279.
20 Dina Ezzat, "A Justified Fear?" al-Ahram Weekly, No. 1040, March 24-30, 2011.
21 Anne Applebaum, "In the Arab World, It's 1848 - Not 1989," Washington Post, Feb. 21, 2011.
22 With regard to Egypt, Ellis Goldberg called it "Mubarakism without Mubarak." See Foreign Affairs, Feb. 11, 2011.
23 Thomas L. Friedman, "Hoping for Arab Mandelas," New York Times, March 26, 2011.
24 R. J. Crampton, Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century - and After (London: 2nd Ed., Routledge, 1997), p. 407; John Keane, "Refolution in the Arab World,", April 28, 2011.
25 Fouad Ajami, "How the Arabs Turned Shame into Liberty," New York Times, Feb. 26, 2011.
26 Fouad Ajami, "Egypt's Heroes with No Names," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2011